Many organizations are plagued with intolerably long, frequent, and ineffective meetings. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to have better, fewer, shorter meetings. Most of these insights come from working with Freyr Guðmundsson at my start-up (formerly GoodsCloud, now NewStore), and he tells me that many are originally from the book Death by Meeting.
There are three types of meetings:
- Strategic: meetings about what we should do.
- Tactical: meetings about how we are going to accomplish the strategy we already agreed on.
- Reflective: meetings about what went right and wrong and how we can do better next time.
These meeting types should occur in this sequence, in a loop.
Everyone should understand these meeting categories. Every meeting should fall into only one category. If a meeting category starts to change, that’s ok, but the group should be conscious of that when it happens.
Strategic meetings can change into tactical ones: “we can’t choose that strategy until we know how it will work” or reflective ones: “we tried that last time and it didn’t work”. Tactical meetings can change into strategic ones: “Well now maybe with these new thoughts we picked the wrong strategy” or reflective ones: “we tried that last time and it didn’t work”. And reflective meetings can turn into either, as you discover a better strategy or tactic and want to start exploring it.
When a strategic or tactical meeting changes to a different type, it’s a sign that previous meetings were incomplete, or skipped, an important participant was excluded, or institutional knowledge and experience has not spread to the whole team. When a reflective meeting changes to a different type, it’s a sign of the team getting ahead of itself.
When a meeting type is changing, one thing the participants can do is explicitly note that it’s now a different kind of meeting and agree to the change. But it’s often better to put the triggering issue aside and reschedule a new meeting of the new type for that issue, because frequently different people need to be in the meeting now that it’s a different type.
Controlling meeting lengths
- Strategic meetings are the only kind that should be open-ended. It helps to loosely time-box them, but if they go over, that’s ok.
- Tactical and reflective meetings should be strictly time-boxed and rescheduled, not continued, if they go over time.
- Develop zero tolerance for anyone arriving late to meetings. Being five minutes late for a six person meeting wastes thirty minutes of company time. There are stories about companies that charge people $1 per minute per person that they are late to meetings. Two minutes late to an eight-person meeting? $16 off your paycheck. I’m not suggesting this (it probably is illegal in some places) but it’s good to make people aware that showing up late has a real cost.
- Give a five minute grace time at the end of the meeting for people to take a break, go to the bathroom, get a coffee or a smoke, before their next meeting. So, schedule them for 11:00-11:25, or 11:00-11:55, not 11:00-11:30, or 11:00-12:00. This grace period will also help with tardiness.
- Meetings tend to expand to their allotted time. Experiment with five, ten, fifteen minute meetings, don’t just make everything a half hour or an hour.
Anectdote: I once had a two-day workshop with a client who flew in three people to meet with two from our company. We spent about an hour understanding the problem, and another hour working out a solution. Then we spent the remainder of the day and a half mediating a contentious argument between two people from the client company, which was ultimately irrelevant to the solution. And we couldn’t stop it. These two people were in a power struggle and they suddenly had the free time allocated to pursue it. At the end of day two, as the client was packing up to go to the airport and get back to work, the two guys agreed to disagree on their contentious point, and we all reiterated our commitment to the solution we’d come up with in the first two hours the day before. It had been a huge waste of everyone’s time, but a great example of how people can fill up left-over meeting time for something else.
Meetings should contain only the minimum number of people that are necessary. The absolute best is to keep the meetings to no more than two or three.
If someone is sitting there, typing/tapping on his/her laptop/phone, and not really listening, that person was not necessary and shouldn’t have been invited.
Enforcing Meeting Etiquette
The most important point about meeting etiquette is to develop a culture where everyone, not just the boss or meeting leader, is aware of and advocating for the company’s meeting etiquette and rules.
- The person who calls the meeting is responsible for publicizing the meeting type and the allotted time. If this is not done, then the rest of the team should ask for that information at the beginning of the meeting, or it should be canceled.
- It’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the boss or meeting leader, to keep an eye on the time, to stick to the meeting type, and to call out when the time is up or when the meeting is changing type.
- It’s also everyone’s responsibility to speak up when there is too much conflict. Often it’s the two most powerful/influential people in the meeting who end up arguing, and the others feel unable to speak up about it, and end up trapped listening to an argument. Develop a culture where anybody, even the person who just started yesterday, can speak up and say “calm down!” or ask “can you continue this discussion at a different time?”
- I would hold strategic architecture meetings with just two or three of my devs from a nine-person team, and schedule them for an hour, and almost always end them early.
- Our nine-person dev team’s reflective meetings were strictly time-boxed to one hour (well, 55 minutes). We frequently had more to talk about at the end, but usually they were points that only one or two people really cared about, so we would break out into little groups and talk about those remaining issues informally over the next day or so.
It might seem like a lot of work to stick to all of these guidelines and ideas, but actually it wasn’t that hard for us. I hope it helps you enjoy better, fewer and shorter meetings too.